|The Court's goal is to deliver excellence in service for children, families and parties through effective judicial and non-judicial processes and high-quality and timely judgments, while respecting the needs of separating families.||
The purpose of the Court, as Australia's superior court in family law, is to:
The core services of the Court are those that:
The Court's vision provides for:
- Growth in registered users of Commonwealth Courts Portal of 43,773.
- 11,951 provisions of proof that divorces were granted.
- 75 per cent of court users surveyed are satisfied with their experience at the registries.
- Average 187 live chats per day.
- 330,178 calls to the NEC.
- 356 appeals finalised.
- 82,446 divorce orders were printed and posted to clients.
- 74,842 emails sent in response to telephone enquiries.
- 20,397 Total applications filed.
- 13,457 Consent orders finalised.
- 1519 first instance judgments published.
- 195,598 documents eFiled.
- 225,101 counter enquiries.
The Honourable Chief Justice Diana Bryant AO.
After several years of significant change in the Family Court's judiciary, due to a series of retirements, the 2014–15 financial year has presented a period of relative stability. At the end of the 2014–15 reporting year, the Family Court had a total of 33 judges with the retirement of one judge, Justice Graham Bell, in February 2015 and the appointment of Justice Robert McClelland who commenced in Sydney in June 2015. This period of stability has been in contrast to the previous two financial years when six judges retired.
The timely replacement of judicial officers is imperative at a time when the cases that come before the Court have become increasingly complex, and the community, quite appropriately, is demanding more resources and attention on issues such as family violence.
Whilst the number of filings in the Court remain stable, the workload of the Court continues to be extremely demanding as the judges deal with cases involving issues of family violence and/or allegations of child abuse, cases involving mental illness and/or substance abuse, which are increasing in frequency, cases relating to international family law (including Hague Convention abduction matters and the 1996 Protection Convention), medical procedures for which court approval is required as well as property cases, including those involving accrued jurisdiction and third parties.
Whilst the number of filings for first instance work has been steady, the Appeal Division of the Court has experienced an 18 per cent increase in the number of notice of appeal cases. The number of unrepresented litigants in an appeal case has increased slightly. Cases involving unrepresented litigants increase the time required in a case and places additional demands on the Court, particularly on staff. On 12 March the Honourable Justice Murray Aldridge was appointed to the Appeal Division and a new position of National Coordinating Appeals Registrar was created to assist with the coordination of appeals across the four appeal regions.
Court and the community
The Court has made submissions to two inquiries concerning family violence: the Senate Finance and Public Administration References Committee's Inquiry into Domestic Violence in Australia; and the Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence. The submissions explained the way in which the various sections in the Family Law Act 1975 (Cth) concerning family violence interact and the Rules; how the sections on family violence in the Act interact; some jurisprudence; as well as rules, practices and procedures including screening processes for family violence.
Arising from these inquiries some continuing misunderstandings about the Court continue to prevail, in particular the assertion that the work of the Court is carried out in secrecy and without scrutiny. This is not the case and subject only to the inhibitions in s 121 of the Act. The Court is open and anyone may attend and listen to cases. The judgments of the Court delivered after contested hearings are published on AustLII and are available in hard copy publications for all members of the community to read. The Court is inhibited by s 121 which prevents publication of an account of proceedings which would identify parties, children or witnesses. As a result of this, the cases on AustLII use pseudonyms rather than the actual names of the parties, however the judgments are otherwise unaltered. There is nothing to prevent anyone who attends court from discussing what has occurred with members of the public as long as the identification of the parties, children or witnesses is not made. The manner in which the Court makes its decisions in accordance with the Family Law Act is set out in the judgments which, as a superior court, are a fundamental feature of decision making which must always be transparent.
The Family Law Act itself has been significantly amended nearly 80 times and been the subject of numerous reviews since its inception 40 years ago. At the present time, the Family Law Council has a reference in relation to looking at increased collaboration between the federal family law system and the state-based child protection systems, including looking at enhanced information sharing. The Australian Institute of Family Studies is also conducting an evaluation of the amendments to the Act in 2011 with an emphasis on family violence and the extent to which the legislative changes have brought about changes in decision making and orders the parties reach by agreement. It is conceivable that once these reports have been concluded and considered by Government even further amendments to the Act will occur.
A major achievement this year was the development of the Australian Standards of Practice for Family Assessments and Reporting. This publication, created by the Family Court of Australia, the Federal Circuit Court of Australia, and the Family Court of Western Australia, aims to establish a nationally consistent approach when family assessments are undertaken and reports are prepared for the courts. The standards aim to:
- promote good practice in conducting reporting in full family assessments by social workers and psychologists in family law matters such as those completed under s 62G of the Family Law Act and family reports commissioned privately,
- provide information to the judiciary, agencies, legal professions and parties who utilise the services of family assessors to increase the understanding in the broader sector as to what constitutes good practice in family assessments and reporting, and
- inform what can be expected as a minimum standard of practice when conducting family assessments and preparing reports and they were the subject of wide stakeholder consultation.
Finance and administration
As part of the 2015–16 Federal Budget, the current Government announced its intention to implement reforms to the Family Court, the Federal Court and the Federal Circuit Court. These reforms, to take effect from 1 July 2016, merge the corporate functions of all three courts to form a single administrative body with a single appropriation under the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act 2013 (Cth). These changes will have a significant impact on the future operations of the Family Court and at the time of writing this report, details of how these reforms will be implemented and precisely how budgets will be allocated is yet to be determined.
2014–15 financial result
In accordance with the courts' forecast of significant deficits for this and the outgoing years, the underlying result for the 2014–15 financial year for the joint administration was a loss of $4,700,000.
The final report from the International Framework for Court Excellence implementation committee was completed. As part of the implementation of the recommendations from this report, internal arrangements for court governance have undergone some change. The Chief Justice's Policy Advisory Committee has been replaced with the Court Policy Committee and a number of changes to the membership of committees has also occurred. Significant work has been done by each of the members of the committees responsible for various areas. In particular, work is being done internally by the Chair of the Court Performance Committee to ensure the maximum homogeneity of court practices and processes across the different registries. Further details are provided in this report at Part six.
During the year the appointment of the Honourable Linda Dessau AM as Governor of Victoria from 1 July 2015 was announced. Her Honour is a former Judge of the Family Court who retired in 2013 and we congratulate her on her appointment.
Court tour goes interactive
The Family Court of Australia and Federal Circuit Court of Australia have launched an online video for unrepresented litigants which explains what to expect when attending a court appointment or hearing for the first time.
The video, which can be accessed from the courts' YouTube channels, provides an insight into preparing for court including:
- what to bring to court
- what to do when you arrive at court
- the layout of a courtroom
- how to address a judge, and
- general court etiquette.
Many people involved in family law cases have never needed to attend court before and this video aims to remove unnecessary stress or anxiety about what to expect.
In the Family Court, almost 30 per cent of cases involved at least one party with no legal representation. Unrepresented litigants provide a unique challenge to the courts as they often require extra resources to finalise their cases in a timely manner.
'It is easy for clients of the courts to feel overwhelmed when attending a court hearing or appointment. This video will help them to be more prepared and more comfortable with the surroundings and the procedures they need to follow.'
Richard Foster, Chief Executive Officer
To view the Court Tour visit the Family Court of Australia's YouTube channel at: www.youtube.com/familycourtAU
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